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In February, a group of American corrections officials, judges, prosecutors and public defenders spent a week visiting prisons in Germany and the Netherlands.
Those countries incarcerate people at about one-tenth the rate of the United States, for far less time, and under conditions geared toward social reintegration rather than punishment alone.
A new report based on the group’s research suggests that European sentencing and penal practices may provide useful guidance in the growing effort to reform an American prison system buckling under its own weight.
The American and European systems differ in almost every imaginable way, beginning with their underlying rationale for incarceration.
Under German law, the primary goal of prison is “to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release.”
Public safety is ensured not simply by separating offenders from society, but by successfully reintegrating them.
To this end, inmates are given a remarkable level of control over their lives and their personal privacy. Some wear their own clothes and prepare their own meals. They interact with staff trained not only in prison security, but in educational theory and conflict management.
Germany and the Netherlands rely heavily on alternatives to prison — including
other community-service programs — and they
impose much shorter sentences when there is no alternative to incarceration.
While the average state prison term in the United States is about three years, more than 90 percent of Dutch sentences and 75 percent of German sentences are 12 months or less.
Upon release, European inmates do not face the punitive consequences that American ex-prisoners do —
from voting bans to
restrictions on employment,
public assistance, all of which increase the likelihood of re-offending.
Direct comparisons between countries are hard to make, and some European practices would not be workable with violent prisoners.
The report, issued by the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit group based in California, and the Vera Institute of Justice, recognizes this reality but emphasizes that many of the principles are applicable especially to lower-level, nonviolent offenders.
Several state prison systems are heading in this direction. Georgia has increased its investment in specialized drug and mental-health courts. Colorado, Maine and Mississippi are among those reforming solitary-confinement practices. As states continue to rethink outdated assumptions, they would be wise to pay close attention to European counterparts.
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